Carlos Santana, latin-rock shaman and one of rock’s most elegantly passionate guitarists, is back. Or so it appears from his latest – and 36th! – album, Shape Shifter.

Santana has spent the last few years in a creative hole, resorting to putting out an album of rock guitar classics – 2010’s Guitar Heaven – which, to old and new fans alike was the nadir of his recent output. Since his 1999 smash, Supernatural – which, due to a guest list of contemporary stars such as Lauren Hill and Rob Thomas, won him a whole new raft of fans (Supernatural went 15 times platinum and won 9 Grammys) – Santana has gradually taken on a Bob Marley-like saintliness, in direct proportion to the decline in his music. Of course there have been flashes of the old “spiritual orgasm” in Carlos’ playing, but they have too often all but been buried in the dross.

Shape Shifter is a welcome departure – oddly a departure back into what Santana does best: jamming over the top of jazz inflected funk and world-music (largely Afro-Cuban) grooves. Only one of the 13 tracks is a vocal, so Carlos is free to blow – rather than inject blues-style call-and-response lines in between Rob Thomas’s crooning – and blow he does.

As ever, his playing is split between sweetly lyrical blues and frenzied sky-high howling. His guitar tone is as phat and warm as ever – on strings led ballad ‘Dom’ his tone seems almost overwhelmingly so, like cables of honey pouring from the speakers. Smooth jazz grooves such as ‘Angelica Faith’ recall the late 70s output where he and The Santana Band were listening more to John Coltrane than AM Rock.

‘Nomad’ is the wake-up – heavy heavy rock flavours with his solo biting and scratching its way into Jimi Hendrix territory (although Santana was always the cool blue moon to Hendrix’s thousand burning suns). The title track, ‘Shape Shifter’ opens the album with some serious Latin heat after a Flamenco intro, intermingled with Native American chants (the album is dedicated to Native Americans).

Some of these Spanish interludes and textures – such as the sole vocal track ‘Eres La Luz’ –  can veer a little too close to library ‘world’ music at times, but they are almost always saved by the quiet (and not so quiet) fire of Santana’s superb band (when has Carlos ever had anything but?).

Raul Rekow on conga, like the 70s stalwart, Armando Peraza before him, is the heartbeat of the band. Rekow has been with Santana’s band – bar a 2 year hiatus – since 1976. His percussion break with percussionist Karl Perazzo, is a sunsplash of percussive joy. The band also features the almost supernatural drummer, Dennis Chambers and keyboard veteran Chester Thompson. It is these players’ knowledge and respect for the past and present state of Latin music that allows them to fly. And on Shape Shifter, unencumbered by more pedestrian pop beats, they put big wings under Santana.

And there is a sense of breaking shackles, of – well – freedom on this album. Santana’s music, based as it originally was in the flower power jams of his native San Francisco, has always been about freedom and openness. Maybe the sense of positivity is deeper than that. Speaking to the US Indigenous radio show “Native America Calling”, Santana said he wanted to make this record because “everything in this year of 2012 points to the peak of fear… we need to connect our youngsters back to nature; they are so confused and fragmented…”. Sure, it is the idealistic flower child of San Franciso speaking, but as even that bitter punk Elvis Costello sang –  “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?

Published May 2012 on theorangepress.net

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